Editorial: When ‘More’ becomes less

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 18, 2011

Education officials and legislators will take a while to sort out the impact of a judgeís ruling that the state budget cannot deny poor children access to the pre-k program previously known as More at Four. But one thing is apparent from Judge Howard Manningís ruling handed down Monday. The state is on shaky ground if its policies ration early education services for at-risk youngsters.
Of course, rationing isnít the term the Republican-led legislature used in revamping More at Four. The budget shortfall was behind a 20 percent spending cut and other changes that included new acceptance requirements, copayments and shifting oversight of the program ó now known as N.C. Pre-Kindergarten ó to the Department of Health and Human Services. Yet, however those changes are defended, the consequences for at-risk children are clear: Reduced access, at a higher cost.
Manningís ruling came in response to a complaint filed by the Leandro group, the low-wealth counties involved in a state Supreme Court case that established the right to a ěsound basic educationî for all N.C. youngsters. The plaintiffs argued that the budget undercuts Leandro. The problem isnít the funding cut in itself but the stipulation limiting the pre-k spots for at-risk youngsters to 20 percent, Manning said.
ěThis case has always been about the rights of children,î he wrote. ěThis case is about the individual right of every child to have the equal opportunity to obtain a sound basic education.î
While legislators can cut funding, they canít impose barriers that restrict access to the pre-k program. In effect, Manning said, thatís what the new regulations do ó and itís a restriction that must be remedied.